‘We Make the Path by Travelling': A Personal Reflection on UDL Implementation
‘We make the path by travelling’ is a modified quote by the Spanish poet and philosopher Antonio Machado that encourages us to take responsibility for the choices we make in life. And so it is with the choice to embrace and embed UDL into learning and teaching practice. UDL will likely not happen unless it is championed within institutions by people or communities that recognise its value and worth to all learners. My name is Anita, and I am a midwife lecturer and programme director in the Section of Midwifery at Dundalk Institute of Technology. This paper explains the path that I, together with colleagues in DkIT, are ‘making by travelling’ by seeding and embedding UDL within learning and teaching.
Background and Context
The Section of Midwifery in Dundalk Institute of Technology is a semi-autonomous disciplinary division within the Department of Nursing, Midwifery and Early Years. The section facilitates two full-time programmes and four part-time (professional development) programmes. There are approximately 100 students between both of these full-time programmes with a further 50 qualified personnel on part-time professional development programmes every semester.
There is a diverse range of learners within these groups. Approximately 70% of the undergraduate programme cohort enter through the CAO process with a further 30% entering via Further Education and/or Mature Entry. The other full time programme, the Higher Diploma in Midwifery, is only open to previously qualified nurses meaning that this group of learners are generally more mature and well established within their chosen career pathway. The part-time programmes attract professionals who wish to pursue further specialist career development, many of whom may not have been in education for a (significant) number of years.
To provide some further context regarding my views about UDL, it may be helpful to briefly detail my own reflections about ‘learning’. My vision of learning is that it is both a thoroughly universal and highly individualised activity. Learners similarly demonstrate many universal yet individualised approaches to education. For example, intellectual curiosity and joy of discovery are traits common to most learners, yet, how individual learners navigate this journey through enquiry to new
In recent years, the diversity of learner backgrounds, educational culture and ways of knowing among Midwifery programme cohorts has required a re-imagination of how learning could be enhanced for all participants. Initially, for me, this re-imagining took the form of enquiry/problem-based learning (EBL) which I introduced into midwifery education in DkIT in 2009. Enquiry Based Learning embraces and embeds UDL principles and has offered learners latitude with how they engage with, learn from and express their insights and discoveries. However, even though it is based on sound pedagogical praxis, EBL may not appeal to every learner (Trullàs et al, 2022).
Further reflection and inquiry on my part revealed a strong alignment between the principles of EBL and the agility of UDL. This led to a refocusing of my perspectives on curricular design and development. I began considering how to weave the weft of UDL with the warp of micro, meso and macro curricular/organisational structures and processes. Constructing a visual representation of these actions helped frame my reflections (see Figure 1
UDL as a Pathway Towards Inclusivity
Universal Design for Learning is an inclusive, logical and meaningful approach to learning and teaching that really resonates with my personal/professional educational philosophy. In September 2021, I enrolled in a micro-credential programme / digital badge on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) developed by National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, AHEAD and UCD Access and Lifelong Learning. As mentioned, it occurred to me, during the early weeks of the UDL badge/programme, that I may have already been incorporating several UDL principles and methods into my modules (albeit in some more than others), but that I hadn’t necessarily identified these learning and teaching strategies as UDL. The fundamental requirement, on professionally accredited programmes like midwifery, is to link theory to practice. This requisite has always driven me towards authentic educational modalities and I think that this pursuit of authenticity represents the nexus between my personal values/beliefs about learning/teaching and UDL. Authentic learning embraces the real world, contextualised learning, consideration of multiple perspectives, collaborative construction of knowledge, inclusivity of learning and learners and diversity in teaching and assessment approaches (Herrington and Oliver, 2000). The foundational principles and practices underpinning UDL related to multiple means of engagement, representation and action/expression not only coalesce with authentic learning but may indeed simultaneously reinforce and amplify all of these educational processes. The universality of UDL application ensures inclusivity of all learning for all learners, yet it is also individualised to the specific needs of every person.
Specifics of My UDL Path
The field of learning into which I chose to integrate UDL was an interestingly aligned teaching/learning subject area. When they qualify as Registered Midwives, student midwives will become preceptors (clinical mentors) to students coming behind them. Part of the undergraduate degree in Midwifery requires learners to become competent in teaching and assessing students. Content delivery related to this skills-set occurs during their final year. I thought this a really applicable subject area within which to implement UDL as it involved learning about learning, and, it was going to be accomplished through UDL for the first time. In this way, UDL was fostered as an inclusive vision of, for, and as learning and teaching.
The cohort of final year midwifery students would have worked with many preceptors during the 4 years of their programme so they would have had very authentic lived experiences of being preceptored that could help inform their learning in this area. Harnessing this personal knowing, I decided to implement UDL in all three areas related to engagement, representation and expression. The specific details of these interventions are outlined in Table 1 below. I examined each UDL element and attempted to work with students lived experiences in order to inform their new knowledge and skills. Some of these interventions included:
- Adopting mixed learning/teaching modalities that included focused discussion, reflection and discussion of evidence (including UDL).
- Relating student lived experiences to evidence and best practice in learning and teaching.
- Constructing and crafting a ‘living wall’ of best practices around teaching and learning that used flipcharts and different coloured markers to enable week-on-week consideration of enhanced knowing and being.
- Authentically engaging in self and peer reflection and feedback of/for/as learning.
- Ensuring accessible and varied learning resources were available through Moodle.
- Weaving the philosophy of midwifery (i.e. partnership, due regard, holism, empowerment), into a philosophy of midwifery educators.
- Encouraging learners to consider the best mode to demonstrate their learning whilst ensuring assessment literacy and incorporating self/peer feedback.
Multiple Means of Engagement
|Choice & Diversity||
Teaching Approach: Mixed authentic modalities - discussion/reflection.
Relevance: Relate to student experience - what will provide meaningful learning / consider all learning and learner needs.Creativity: Consider options - what works for you when you learn?
|Authenticity & Feedback||
Salience of goals: Assist students to develop a plan for learning.
Collaboration and communication: Speak with each other about learning - utilise non-summative peer assessment and self-assessment where possible.Feedback/forward: Ensure feedback is relevant, constructive, accessible, consequential, and timely. Build this feedback into module.
Scaffolding & Support
Check-ins to appraise progress: Offer concurrent feedback where possible / time for reflection.
Multiple Means of Representation
|Resource Variety||Authenticity & Applicability|
Consider: Academic/Medical Jargon/professionalism.
Philosophy and values of midwifery and extend to students.Role model evidence-based learning and teaching approaches.
|Authenticity & Applicability||
Teaching Approach: discussion/reflection
Relevance: Relate to student experience - consider all learning / learner needs.
Creativity: Consider options - video/audio / written / practical skillsLink teaching approach to other sessions and provide ‘conducive’ learning environment.
Multiple Means of Action and Expression
|Diversity/Variety In Demonstration of Learning/Knowledge||
Student Involvement: Consider mode of summative assessment where possible –
Encourage: creativity and authenticity and sustainability.
Reflect: on rubric – get students familiar with using assessment rubric/metrics
Provide: peer assessment feedback to individuals where possible
Provide: time to reflect on feedback before summative assessment
|Nurture Lifelong Learning Skills||
Nurture critical thinking: Reflection on self and others – self/peer feedback.
Guide and support: Sustainable learning / applicable/modifiable/meaningful.Keep Clinical Application Centred: Reflect on professional role & guiding toward future career options.
The impact of these specific redesign activities on learner experiences was measured by direct student feedback in the form of quantitative/qualitative questions on completion of the module. Ethical principles were adhered to with regard to bias and power gradients i.e. students completed the survey / open question anonymously after their module assessment and I did not review survey results until after I corrected assessments. Students were made aware of these safeguards.
The anonymous three-question, 5-point rating survey asked learners about their learning experiences with respect to multiple means of engagement, representation and demonstration (Figure 2):
|1||On a scale of 1-5 (1 = not engaging, 5 = very engaging), could you please rate how engaging you felt the sessions were. Consider how sessions were facilitated, what resources were used, how relevant learning was to practice, use of feedback and critical reflection (peer/self/facilitator), check-ins on progress.|
|2||On a scale of 1-5 (1 = not helpful, 5 = very helpful), could you please rate how helpful you felt the learning and teaching resources used in the sessions were. Consider use of discussions, small group on facilitators v impediments to learning, resources on Moodle, use of practice session with feedback and critical reflection (peer/self/facilitator), check-ins on progress, use of a model (Peyton) to frame skill learning and teaching.|
|3||On a scale of 1-5 (1 = not inclusive, 5 = very inclusive), could you please rate how inclusive you felt the options to demonstrate your learning have been. Consider use of multiple modes of expression (recorded/real-time demonstration), use of practical session with feedback and critical reflection (peer/self/facilitator), check-ins on progress, use of a model (Peyton) to frame skill learning and demonstration.|
Figure 2: Survey
Findings from this modest evaluation revealed that students found UDL to be an effective learning and teaching methodology for them as current students and as future teachers. Enhanced choice, recognition of differing learning styles/needs, concurrent feedback and learning authenticity were identified as the key elements that enriched learning and application.
Seeding and Embedding the UDL Path
Ongoing learner feedback, both formal and informal, has continued to underpin my plans for everyday adoption of UDL approaches to my learning and teaching praxis. It has also contributed to the bolstering of my ambition to support colleagues and learners alike to gain a sense of coherence surrounding UDL. I am currently promoting UDL with colleagues within and beyond my discipline in DkIT. I champion UDL at every opportunity; Academic Council, Inclusive Learning and Teaching Sub-Committee, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Departmental meetings and disciplinary meetings. I also co-deliver information sessions for colleagues and I am involved in planning an institute-wide UDL workshop in May. In addition, as co-founder and co-chair of the DkIT Nursing, Midwifery and Early Years (NMEY) Research Group I ensure that UDL forms a central tenet within our two research domains (wellbeing and education). UDL has the potential to contribute valuably to both these research areas with respect to optimising development and wellbeing and enhancing praxis (linking of theory and practice through reflection). Advocating for multiple means of engagement, representation and expression across NMEY research activities will further support the embedding of UDL within the Department, School, Institute and wider research community.
Optimising UDL Adoption and Implementation
UDL is a way of knowing, an epistemology that recognises and responds to the wonderful variety of learners and learning modalities that exist. It is a transformative and inclusive approach to learning and teaching that can be relatively easily adopted through a ‘plus-one’ process (Behling and Tobin, 2018) and built upon through structured learning and teaching enhancement initiatives like the UDL digital badge. However, even changes for the better, like refocusing pedagogical perspectives to consider widespread adoption of UDL, have the potential to trigger unease for some. Optimising UDL implementation will require an emotionally intelligent approach that acknowledges and is informed by humanistic organisational theory. Humanistic leadership embraces diversity in all its forms, where conflicting views are regarded as sources of improvement and innovation (Peus and Frey, 2009).
Introductory UDL sessions within DkIT aim to enhance the meaningfulness, comprehensibility and manageability of integrating UDL into programmes. These sessions promote the previously mentioned ‘plus-one’ approach where participants are introduced to UDL by considering one alternative to how learners engage with or access or demonstrate learning. The objectives for introductory UDL sessions and summer workshop are to:
- Consider and reflect on the meaningfulness and applicability of UDL to all higher education programmes within the institute.
- Discuss and reflect on the core elements of UDL adopting the ‘plus-one’ approach in order to enhance comprehensibility of the initiative.
- Review and reflect on the manageability of introducing and sustaining UDL across professional programmes.
Adopting a humanistic approach to UDL introduction, implementation and continuance may optimise acceptance of and willingness to actively support and participate in UDL initiatives. The UDL introductory/seeding process is informed by the following principles/steps:
- Promoting awareness of UDL in a fair and ethical way that extends to all stakeholders to build a culture of trust and coherence. Being honest and reliable may help colleagues feel connected, involved and invested in UDL implementation
- Ensuring all communication about UDL is offered in a facilitative way. Highlighting the benefits of UDL will be balanced with authentic discussion of challenges that may present. Consistent, continued persuasive communication with departmental colleagues and the wider institute will be a core action.
- Articulating a unified vision for UDL in DkIT will enhance meaningfulness for colleagues. Using role modelling from other HEIs may establish a cohesive ambition and augment a sense of coherence towards UDL. Inviting a specialist from CAST to speak with colleagues in DkIT will create an expert foundation for UDL praxis.
- Ensuring that people committed to UDL, experience a culture of fairness related to their contribution, implementation processes, consistency of information and due regard for all involved. Open discussion about the workload versus the manageability and potential challenges of UDL implementation will be a core tenet of our UDL plan.
- Nurturing a ‘mistakes as learning opportunity’ culture in relation to UDL implementation. Acknowledging that not all interventions will be perfect first time and becoming comfortable with imperfection as a means to drive improvements around UDL.
- Being authentic about the lived experiences of UDL – acknowledging the efforts that are required will help to reveal the human side of UDL implementation.
UDL is a vibrant tapestry of learning and teaching. It is crafted through the weaving of UDL principles with individual and wider collegiate processes. Through its inclusivity and interconnectedness, UDL is revealed as a collective yet individualised educational approach that embraces the complexity, diversity and multiple meanings associated with ways of being and knowing in the world. By being thoughtful and deliberate about UDL, we can create an educational culture that is meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling for all learners. We make this path by travelling.
Behling, K.T. and Tobin, T.J., (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia: West Virginia University Press.
Herrington, J. and Oliver, R., (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational technology research and development, pp.23-48.
Hunter, L.P., (2008). A hermeneutic phenomenological analysis of midwives’ ways of knowing during childbirth. Midwifery, 24(4), pp.405-415.
Machado, A., (1927).'Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.(Walker, there is no road. The road is made as you walk.)' Border of a Dream: Selected Poems published in trans. Willis Barnstone, 2023 Copper Canyon Press
Peus, C. and Frey, D. (2009). Humanism at work: crucial organizational cultures and leadership principles, in, Spitzeck, H., Pirson, M., Amann, W., Khan, S. and Von Kimakowitz, E. (eds)., 2009, Humanism in business. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp 260-277
Trullàs, J.C., Blay, C., Sarri, E. and Pujol, R., (2022). Effectiveness of problem-based learning methodology in undergraduate medical education: a scoping review. BMC medical education, 22(1), p.104.